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DVD SAVANT

The Blind Menace


The Blind Menace
AnimEigo
1960 / B&W / 2:35 enhanced widescreen / 91 min. / Shiranui kengyo / Street Date June 15, 2010 / 24.98
Starring Shintaro Katsu, Toru Abe, Mieko Kondo, Mayumi Kurata, Tamao Nakamura, Joji Tsurumi, Yoko Wakasugi.
Cinematography
Soichi Aisaka
Original Music Ichiro Saito
Written by Minoru Inuzuka from a book by Nobuo Uno
Produced by Hisashi Okuda
Directed by Kazuo Mori

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Japanese samurai films are often compared and contrasted with American westerns. Both popular genres deal with a specific historical period and offer (mostly) heroic characters in stories that follow a generic pattern, if sometimes only to comment on it. Although Japanese genre films have been criticized as copies of Western models, they tend to be years ahead of their American counterparts when it comes to explicit brutality, cynical corruption and sexual situations. Samurai films inspired a major change in westerns worldwide, in John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven and Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars. Both films are remakes of Japanese originals.

Actor Shintaro Katsu's popular Zatoichi series plays with the samurai formula by introducing a wily blind swordsman as the hero. Narratively speaking, the brilliance of the long-running series lies in how Zatoichi manages to out-think and even out-fight normal sighted foes, with more credibility than would be thought possible. Although he frequently pretends to be corrupt so as to bring his enemies out in the open, Katsu's Zatoichi is basically a virtuous hero. What few fans know is that immediately before Shintaro Katsu created his Zatoichi character, he had a substantial hit playing another blind character, one with a wholly evil temperament.

1960's The Blind Menace is set in the familiar historical period of samurai films but has no swordplay scenes. It follows the career of a blind masseur who uses deception to commit rape and murders his way to a high office. Feudal Japan had a special caste system for blind citizens, to encourage them to become musicians and masseurs. The ambitious and unscrupulous Suginoichi is first shown as a small child, using his disability to bilk adults in ingeniously underhanded ways. We smile when Suginoichi scores a bucket of saké by picking his nose into it. But we have a different reaction when the boy extorts money from an adult by claiming his blindness has been exploited.

Suginoichi's adult adventures show the ambitious masseur indulging his appetites and accumulating power through crimes of a particularly heartless and cruel nature. He murders a traveler on the road, and then pretends to befriend a highwayman while actually framing him for the killing. The two-faced Suginoichi ingratiates himself with clients and then uses privileged information to force himself upon gentle ladies in economic distress. He rapes one worried wife and forces her to return to him daily as he parcels out a supposed loan. When his victim's husband returns Suginoichi adds insult to injury by forcing her to return the money. Upon hearing that the dishonored wife has killed herself, Suginoichi cynically disavows any responsibility.

Suginoichi's goal is to claim the high office of 'top masseur', an honorary guild position that guarantees a life of luxury as well as access to the Shogun. To this end the blind schemer manipulates a group of thieves into accepting him as their rightful leader. Master strategist Suginoichi maintains his composure even when these comrades try to eliminate him, with the result that they simply conclude that he's too brilliant to oppose. He eventually connives for the serving Top Masseur to be murdered. Although Suginoichi reaches his goal, he cannot change his character. He purchases a wife of surpassing beauty and coldly lays a trap to find out if she will be faithful.

The Blind Menace is an almost appallingly straightforward look at a thoroughly black-hearted scoundrel. Unlike American and English films with comparable themes, it neither sympathizes with nor softens the vile Shuginochi, who seems to revel in seeing his innocent victims ground into the dust. Edgar Ulmer's 1948 Ruthless documents the career of a conscienceless social climber but presumes that society is at least partly to blame. Robert Rossen's All the King's Men is a more typical account of an ambition politician as a social menace: Broderick Crawford's Willie Stark refuses to let human decency stand in his way. Stark comes to a violent end, but the movie waffles about playing with moral issues. The year before The Blind Menace Jack Clayton directed the influential English film Room at the Top, in which Laurence Harvey's working-class social climber betrays the love of his life to attain his Dreiser- like place in the sun. It at least foregoes a conventional moral comeuppance.

Shintaro Katsu's diabolical blind masseur is a completely convincing characterization. The shameless Suginoichi hides his disappointments and hatreds, revealing his true self only when indulging in his vices. Hiding behind the guise of a humble masseur, he finds it easy to surprise his victims. Those he murders barely have time to realize that they've been had, while the women he outrages appeal in vain for mercy. Suginoichi really has no equivalent in American westerns or gangster films of the time -- even with the addition of fifties' psychologizing, Hollywood's villains tend to follow predictable moral contours.

Prolific director Kazuo Mori doesn't need to give The Blind Menace any particular stylization, as his villain holds our attention like a magnet. Fans of the entertaining Zatoichi films will be particularly enthralled, as the two characters have traits in common: Shintaro Katsu's heroic blind swordsman retains much of Suginoichi's essential deviousness.


AnimEigo's DVD of The Blind Menace is a flawless enhanced transfer of this B&W Daiei release. The English subtitles are augmented with AnimEigo's dependably precise production notes, which define unusual words and explain obscure cultural references. Other notes cover the unusual career of actor Shintaro Katsu. His spouse of many years, Tamao Nakamura, has a major role in the film. While playing Zatoichi, Katsu produced another influential series based on the popular samurai manga Lone Wolf and Cub, starring his older brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama. The six entries in this series, also dubbed the "Baby Cart" and "Sword of Vengeance" films, were for years considered the bloodiest cinema produced anywhere by anybody.

An original trailer is also included.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Blind Menace rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: production notes, original trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 5, 2010

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.



DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson

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